Miguel and Claudia Labrador are missionaries in the Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. When they started up a formal structure to train local people in theology, they made the deliberate choice to structure classes in a circle. I asked Miguel to tell me a little more about this decision.
I was recently asked about the ‘Seminary’ we have established in the Andes Mountains Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. To be honest, I’ll have to admit that I don’t exactly know why we call it ‘Seminary,’ but I suspect it fulfills a felt need for affirmation amongst a religiously conquered people. From the very beginning, I, and several others, sought to create a different kind of seminary, and looked for a different kind of seminary student. The pool of the first class consisted of those already actively engaged in God’s mission.
Our goal was not to remove students from their native environments, train them in some esoteric or theoretically detached theology and then reinsert them back into their natural settings to figure out how to make what they’ve learned relevant. In fact, it was quite the reverse. We brought them into seminary with their relevances, we dialogued, and through healthy and continued debate and exploring God’s Word in community, we learn together.
Our ‘classes’ are not structured in common lecture format. We form a circle of the students where each can see the other, there are no ‘teacher’s pets’ sitting up front, and no missed misunderstandings or disagreements. What do I mean? Well, in normal formats, when someone doesn’t understand a particular comment or teaching and that person is situated in a row ‘behind’ others, no one catches it. When someone has another point of view, a correction to be offered, or an outright disagreement, they are often lost in the regimented crowd. This is clearly demonstrated when, in a rowed class, someone from the back of the room has to strain to be noticed and those in front have to turn around to get eye contact with them, or to even hear.
Being in a circle with other students requires a certain amount of vulnerability. The vulnerability is equally dispersed when each one is equally distanced from the center. There is no caste system, no raised physical or mental platform, and no mechanically engineered linear divisions which only serve to separate people. There are times, however, when the professors may feel surrounded if they go into the center of the circle. But ultimately I think this is healthy. It certainly is for me.
Lastly, gathering in a circle is not just talking about the layout of the room. Changing the seating might not change anything. A circular ‘attitude’ is also required. Believers tend to focus on the vertical relationship and neglect the horizontal. They have been taught to look up for strength, guidance, peace etc. Yes, by all means, look to the One, the Head, He who is above all, but also look to each other, horizontally, as the church of the living God. ‘Seminary in a Circle’ is a little bit more formal (than our regular fellowship meetings) in the dissemination of information, yes, but it also assumes participation expressed by eating together, doing life together, missioning together, and constantly moving the center of the circle to where the Spirit leads.
Our seminary is just one circle in a multi-rippled set of concentric circles and one piece of a multi-pronged approach to sustaining a robust, organic, and flourishing disciple making movement. If you have further questions, let me know. You can contact me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/missional.
I recommend following Miguel on Facebook, Twitter or through his blog, God-Directed Deviations – he’ll ask you questions to provoke you to think more deeply about everything you think you know about missions and ecclesiology.
What do you think? Would it be better to study theology in rows or in a circle? Is there any need for seminaries to rethink their teaching techniques?